This travel blog is published under the catch-all title “Trains, boats, planes,…….” and is, in a large part, a homage to public transport. In today’s blog I’m going to take you on a journey to visit the London 2012 Olympic Park and a few other attractions of London using six different types of publicly provided transport, including trains, boats and, with a bit of a stretch of the imagination, planes. And there will be a fair bit of walking.
Friends from Sheffield had come to stay for a few days and, as the London 2012 Olympic Games had just finished, we decided to take a trip around East London and see what we could see.
To start the day we walked the few minutes from our flat to the bus stop opposite St Matthias Church. The church is a fine example of the work of the Victorian Gothic revivalist architect Sir George Gilbert Scott. His best known works include St Pancras Station, the Albert Memorial and the main building of the University of Glasgow, my alma mater. From the clock balcony on the spire you can see for miles and miles in every direction and, if it was open to the public, we could get a visual preview of our planned journey. I know this for certain as a few years ago we had the privilege of being taken up to the balcony by the then keeper of the church clock. The views were magnificent.
A quick check of my smartphone app, Live London Bus Tracker, showed that a bus was due in two minutes, so we knew it was worth waiting. And so we boarded TT1 (transport type 1), a single-decker 371 Transport for London (TfL) bus operated by a division of RATP, the Paris Transport Authority. Sometimes globalisation can go too far.
We were at Richmond Station in not much more than five minutes and down the steps to the ticket barrier, just in time to see the London Overground train to Stratford, the station for the Olympic Park, pulling out. No matter, a South West train bound for Waterloo was due. And so it was onto TT2, a suburban train operated, rather incongruously, by Stagecoach, a bus company. The train was a so called ‘fast train’ with only one intermediate stop at Clapham Junction, one of the world’s busiest railway stations with around 2,000 trains passing through every day. So less than 20 minutes later we were pulling into London Waterloo Station.
The change from the train to the underground involved a trek across the vast station concourse followed by three escalators down to the Jubilee Line Eastbound platform. In less than 2 minutes a train arrived and so it was onto TT3, a TfL London Underground train, destination Stratford. The Jubilee Line was so named to commemorate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 when the line was planned. It is London’s newest underground line. By a quirk of the time it took to build, it became fully operational in 1999 in time for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002. The section of the line we were using is completely new, whereas going in the opposite direction to Stanmore the line mostly uses old stations and track, some dating back 100 years.
Stratford is now a real transport hub with two TfL Underground lines, a TfL Overground line, two suburban train lines, the Docklands Light Railway and, last but not least, the Javelin high-speed commuter trains and Eurostar the UK’s one and only international train service. And, of course, it is a major bus interchange with nearly 20 different TfL bus routes and 3 coach services going out into Essex and Cambridgeshire. Some hub!!
The web had proved to be decidedly ambiguous – excuse the oxymoron – with conflicting information about what the general public could visit around the Olympic Park now that the games were over. Arriving in Stratford was our chance to find out first hand. The route to the park is well signposted and took us through the Westfield Shopping Centre and out the other side. We were now in the area where ticket-holders for games would have queued. And that’s as close as we could get. Bits of the main stadium and the Olympic monument were visible but they were largely hidden behind rows and rows of marquees that were used by the athletes.
At this point, John Lewis came to the rescue. They are the official merchandise stockists for the 2012 Games and their store was right beside us. We decided to acquire some memorabilia. And just as well we did. Inside the store the signs take us up three levels and into the Olympic shop. Good so far. Through the shop there is another room which, to our delight, had a long picture window looking out over the whole Olympic Park. Success at last.
The next stop on our tour was to be the new cable car across the Thames and to get there we had to take TT4, the Docklands Light Railway (DLR). The DLR is a network of two-car, crew-less trains built to support the redevelopment of the London Docklands in the 80’s and 90’s. They are extremely quiet in operation and mostly operate well above ground with good views of the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf. It was just six stops to Royal Victoria Docks, the nearest station to the cable car.
A short walk and we were at the very newest mode of public transport in London, TT5, the TfL Emirates Air Line Cable Car. The service is part of the TfL network with Travelcards and Freedom Passes accepted at a reasonable premium, £3.50 for Freedom Pass holders like ourselves. The whole journey covers a distance of about one kilometre mostly at a height of 90 metres. Getting into our appointed cabin required nifty footwork as they are, of course, in continuous movement. The cabins will probably hold about 10 people at a time but we were lucky and only had to share it with two other people. As we swung out from the base station, the first thing we noticed were other cabins at what seemed like hundreds of feet above and a very steep cable leading upwards. It all went very smoothly. The views were tremendous with Canary Wharf to the west, the Olympic Park to the north, the O2 Millennium Dome and Greenwich to the south and the Thames Barrier to the east. Underneath was the mighty Thames, the very reason for London’s existence. All too soon the cabin we were in was descending onto the south bank beside the O2 Dome.
The next leg of our journey was to be by TT6, the Thames Clipper high-speed riverboat service or, to give it its full name, the KPMG Thames Clipper. Sponsors seem to get everywhere these days. The Clippers are catamarans that travel at speeds of up to 28 knots – they feel very fast – and hold 200 or so passengers in a largely enclosed, airline style cabin. This service, now 13 years old, travels to and fro between Central London and the Greenwich area with frequent stops to set down and pick up passengers. It is well patronised by commuters but is also a favourite with tourists who want a fast and scenic way to travel along the Thames. There is no running commentary so remember to take a guidebook if you’re unfamiliar with the landmarks. Once again Travelcards and Freedom Passes were accepted at a very reasonable premium, £3 for Freedom Pass holders.
The first leg of the journey was to Greenwich, crossing the Greenwich Meridian and moving from the Eastern Hemisphere of the globe into the Western Hemisphere – makes you feel very small. We could see the world-famous Greenwich Observatory, the Maritime Museum and the newly restored Cutty Sark. And so the journey continued with views of the towering skyscrapers of Canary Wharf from many angles and on to Deptford and Limehouse, the ancient dock areas on the river where the old warehouses have been converted to expensive housing. Soon we were passing by St Katherine’s Dock on the north shore, now a modern city marina. And then it was under Tower Bridge, still resplendent with the giant Olympic Rings, and past the Tower of London with the ominous sign “The Traitors Gate” through which the prisoners entered mostly to their ultimate deaths.
This is becoming a bit of a travelogue but it’s hard not to be impressed by the hundreds of sites, many world-famous, along the river banks. St Paul’s Cathedral, the Globe Theatre, the Tate Modern Art Gallery to name but a few plus passing under bridge after bridge including the modern London Bridge (the “original” now being in the deserts of Arizona), the infamous wobbly Millennium footbridge and the newly restored Blackfriars Railway Bridge which has a railway station stretching right across the river and is powered by an array of more than 4,000 solar panels on its roof.
Embankment Pier, our final destination, arrived all too soon. The journey had taken nearly an hour which is more than twice the time it would have taken using the Jubilee Line for the same journey but much more than twice as exciting. It was just as well we had had a big breakfast before leaving home, because we now realised that apart from a coffee stop, we had got so carried away by the sights and the varieties of travel that lunch had been completely forgotten. A quick walk up the side of Charing Cross Station and behind the Church of St Martins in the Field took us to a little bit of Yorkshire in London – appropriate given that our friends hailed from Sheffield.
The Chandos is a Samuel Smith’s hostelry in the heart of theatre land. Sam Smith’s is Yorkshire’s oldest independent brewery in Tadcaster, North Yorkshire. The big attraction of The Chandos, apart from the beer, is the excellent menu which includes a delicious Steak & Ale Pudding. With the inner man – and inner woman – well satisfied, it was time to make the last part of our epic journey back to Richmond.
I can only think of two types of public transportation in London that we hadn’t used that day, the tram which runs a cross South London and the London Overground railway that we nearly caught near the beginning of our travels. I’m deliberately ignoring taxis and, with some regrets, bikes. The Barclays Cycle Hire scheme is yet another example of sponsorship in public transport. Anyway enough of that hobby-horse.
The return journey was straightforward. A short walk to Leicester Square underground station followed by the Piccadilly Line to Barons Court, a change to the District Line to Richmond then the old faithful 371 bus back up the hill to home. We were all a bit knackered by the journey and glad to spend the rest of the evening slumped on the couches.
If you haven’t been already, I hope you’re now dying to go on the Emirates Air Line Cable Car and the KPMG Thames Clippers – both very, very enjoyable. As for the Olympic Park, the main reason for our trip, if it wasn’t for John Lewis we would be none the wiser. Hopefully it will be turned into a more visitor friendly site before the glamour and success of the London 2012 has worn off.